Imagine looking white, but not being white. It is an experience that exposes the limitations of racial perception, while reinforcing its power. As a child, the experience unfolds through the whispers of a community’s rejection. Hurried words and sudden glances as adults explain to each other – “he’s not really what he looks like.” It is the loss of unspoken opportunities, the isolation from an elite social circle, glimpsed but never joined. It is a daily pain and a forced passage into a marginal status where racial meaning constantly shifted regardless of ancestry.
Imagine the child of such a person, a child representing the first generation after the Loving decision. This “unwhite” person might seek refuge in a community color-struck with admiration for lighter complexions. A darker-skinned family of social status might perceive an opportunity to open doors for children who would not experience the depths of anti-black attitudes in the United States – if they were light enough, if their hair was good enough. Such a marriage, such a family, might come to represent both an affirmation and a denial of the racial politics at the end of the twentieth century. This child could pick from a variety of cultures and identities – but somehow, he could never become white.
In the African American community, there is a long record of reflection on the proximity of anti-black behaviors and attitudes contrasted against every person’s positive self-image of capability and confidence. W.E.B. DuBois’ described this experience as “double consciousness.” Scholars of European-American identity have asked if this concept had spread throughout the American population in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Was an aggressively racist, “white consciousness” replaced by a variety of ethnic public perceptions that manifested in the proliferation of media like “The Godfather,” “All in the Family,” and “Gangs of New York”? Had the children of European immigrants abandoned the tactics and strategies of assimilation into a broader “white” American identity after 1968?
The answers require more complexity than a simple yes or no. Ethnic identification persists across the shifting patterns of racial perception. Much of this confusion occurs when arguing that Nigerian, Egyptian, or Somalian immigrants have become African Americans, especially when their families in their countries of origin came from Denmark, Belgium, Germany, or the United Kingdom. The creation of the ethnic identifier – “Descendants of Africans Enslaved in North America (Daena)” – responds to these linguistic tactics in seeking advantages in college admissions, government contracting, and private sector employment. These tricks seek to preserve a special status for white identity that American law always defends without ever acknowledging. They are the pervasive defenses of racial elitism that prevent our hypothetical “unwhite” person and his children from participating in the lie of American liberty. Until the self-perceptions and public uses of “white” identity are abandoned by the institutions and individuals who use them to preserve economic, political, and cultural dominance, freedom will remain illusory for all people.
Dr. Walter Greason founded the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (www.icmetrogrowth.com), teaches economic history at Monmouth University (www.monmouth.edu), and is the author of the award-winning historical monograph, Suburban Erasure. His work is available on Twitter (@worldprofessor / @icmgrowth), Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (email@example.com).